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Winter Games

By Pierre Nuss


When you’re playing a campaign, its in-game duration can span over several years of a character’s life. Some of our groups’ Game Masters have the characters live quiet and eventless winter times, compared to the rest of their adventurers’ lives.

This article deals mainly with the winter phases in historic-leaning (before the 18th century) Role-Playing Games, or in Heroic-Fantasy. We’ll discuss two main tendencies when it comes to gaming winter time: the fantastic aspect, and the realistic aspect. We’ll also give some scenarios leads that can keep your inactive Player Characters busy during the frost.

The easy, surrealist winter.

This is the easy solution, for both you and the PCs : you let the characters walk up and down in the snow without inflicting any movement modifier, without having them suffer from extreme cold, frostbite, wolves, or even the implacable feeling of loneliness whilst facing chilling winds whipping through damp clothes.

In this type of winter, not everybody is strolling around on the roads as in summer: only the hardiest keep on roaming about, such as our heroes, who must accomplish their mission at all costs! This gives the PCs an aura of exception, affronting the cold whereas the common folk stay indoors. The stoics PCs struggle against the frost, fearing neither danger nor malady. Classy, very classy.

It would thus be interesting to improve their image through the recognition of this achievement that they are among the few to undertake.

The realistic winter

First thing regarding realistic winters, which should never be omitted, otherwise you risk boring your players : the harshness of a season is variable. A winter can be more or less rigorous. It may even happen that no snow falls on the plains; or on the contrary, any given winter may be more violent than usual.

Think about it, if you’re running a campaign spanning several years.

The passes are closed or impassable due to the snow falls. Nearly all of the merchant guilds cease their activities and rest after a year’s swarms through the main commercial districts and trading posts. Roads have become deserted, since the local armies have taken their quarters in their barracks, and have stopped protecting the routes from the bandits who erect road barriers to rob the few reckless travellers still out and about. Otherwise they just move to the cities to find something to steal.

Gradually, life slows down. Everyone prepares to live through a rigorous winter.

Take a look at Wikipedia’s entry for avalanches. There are a lot of ideas to take from the description of powder snow avalanche.

Travel and movement are thus much more complicated because of the elements, snowfall and migrations of wolf packs. Then there is the risk of avalanches: snow avalanches occur when the load on the upper snow layers exceeds the bonding forces of a mass of snow if the under-layer; everything then collapses and rushes down the slopes without warning. This can also happen when the thick white blanket melts, around March or April.

It’s much easier for PCs to winter in a city, waiting for the season to end – a period that would last from the end of December to February or March, but it depends on the region.

This winter pause technique allows the GM to mark the notion of the passing of time during a long and exacting campaign. PCs – and players – can realise that the world doesn’t revolve around them, and that they are at the mercy of the forces of nature.

They may stay in the warm shelter of an inn, which allows them to heal their old wounds, to craft weapons, to train and master skills, or obtain important positions in the city. The stay at an inn can be restful (or not) and allows the GM to encourage the PCs to squander the fortune they so painstakingly built up during the previous seasons, just to have the right to room and board.

Being trapped indoors gives rise to oppresive situations, such as in the movies like Key Largo or the Shining

You may prefer to avoid a halt at the inn – I personally find it a little too impersonal, unless you do a huge amount of writing an adventure indoors, as the PCs are blocked in by the bad weather. In this case it would be interesting to insert in your setting some nobles or commoners, with whom it would be important to keep up good relations by doing them a service or winning their friendship. This would provide a better locale to spend the winter. If the PCs find sponsors, winter is more comfortable in a warm manor belonging to “powerful people”. Thus the GM has the possibility to add many secondary quests, since the PCs are tied to the life and routine of the household.

Otherwise the PCs continue their adventures. In which case, the risks are greater. [Rulewise, apply as many negative modifiers as you see fit. Now to address the aspect of game mastering…]

Technically, it’s quite difficult to run a winter adventure with realistic conditions of travel, and also because of the scarce economic life at this time. Winter is a time of rest for all (from orcs to humans, even elves), in a fantasy setting.

Winter provides multiple possibilities of role-playing, but it should not be taken too far; a scenario set in a realistic winter should not be common and should remain an exception, so that the players may appropriately feel the importance of the moment. What’s more, don’t forget that GMs should be lenient towards the PCs and should let them exercise, copy their spells, carve out a reputation for themselves, practice their handicraft skills. Also remember that it’s the only time of year the PCs can visit their families, notably their wives, and father children. It’s an aspect which shouldn’t be neglected, as having a social life other than dungeons may appeal to our heroes…

Some leads and synopses on winters

  • A trade caravan braves the cold and snow, and reaches a city which hasn’t been supplied for two months and normally wouldn’t be before two more. The inhabitants are eager to receive early provisions and buy the caravan’s merchandise at twice the standard prices. Considering the number of guards, horses and travellers, the caravan leader must either be paranoid, or transporting an excessively costly item that he has hidden from the citizens. Either that or he’s really the escort of some dignitary hiding amongst the travellers.

  • A Barbarian tribe, in search of food, emigrates. Crossing a frozen river, they camp on the outskirts a city. The lord’s army cannot be brought in, since the levies have been disbanded to their respective homes for the winter, like they do every year… To gather the ban takes time.

    Thus the Barbarians have some leeway to raid, pillage and plunder before being chased away. May be the PCs could limit the damage before the army readies? Or will the anger of the villagers turn into a punitive expedition, while the Barbarians have done no other misdeed than the occupation of fallow fields? By the way, do they even act aggressively? Sometimes the real Barbarian is not the one who we believe…

  • A wolf pack is on the move, seeking territory and hunting grounds more abundant in prey … If a city or a village happens to lie in their path, the confrontation could turn bloody… With a fantasy approach, imagine the increased potential for havoc and rampage if their leader has been doted with intelligence: a lycanthrope? An evil druid? Who knows what thoughts bubble and boil under those fuzzy craniums of theirs? Mere animals? My foot! And the villagers who have readied their pitchforks, axes and hammers won’t say the contrary…

    Variant: during heavy snowfall, the characters find refuge in a fortified farm. The wolf pack is becoming insistent outside, but no one worries, everyone is warm and comfy behind the shelter of high walls. Unfortunately for the unsuspecting inhabitants, the blizzard heaps up the snow against the wall, and around 5 in the morning, the snowdrift is high enough that it allows the predators to jump over the walls and begin the carnage… Especially if you place two wily wolfweres at the head of the pack (Wolfweres in Ravenloft are wolves that transform into men — as opposed to werewolves)

  • A disaster (fire, parasitic mushroom, the granary crumbles under the weight of snow, rot, etc.) strikes and destroys the food reserves of a village just before winter or cold weather. Transport is difficult and the other cities jealously hoard their reserves for themselves, or sell the food at astronomical prices. Will the PCs succeed in finding enough food for everyone? Imagine a race against the clock, doubled by venomous trading between vassals of the same county… maybe food is paid with debentures, or by giving ban and/or territories? [Ed note: this is a good way of making the PC change their allegiance or employers : when a deal is concluded, their army/village/group changes hand]

  • Harvests have been bad at the end of the summer, and famine strikes: people fight for scraps of dogs, rats, or edible plants that have resisted to snow and cold. Where are the PCs? With the villagers looking for food? Or with the nobles, protecting the well-filled granary ? The question is who will watch the others starve to death….

  • The characters are stuck in some remote place by the snowfalls, with a limited reserve of food and very little firewood. [Ed note : water is provided by melting snow, but you burn calories by the process. So you need either more combustible or more food…]. Going out for food is deadly : [ever tried] the joys of mountain glaciers and ravines in a snow storm? What will the PCs do? Wait until it gets better and pray that they don’t starve beforehand? Ration to the extreme? Eat one of the PCs? Or stupidly die of hunger?

    Please note that this storyline will not work as well in a universe where magic is quite commonplace, since it allows the PCs to find easy solutions to their problems. Unless all magic is somehow blocked at the locality, the situation is unlikely to become troublesome…

  • The PCs learn that the neighbouring kingdom is about to invade. They must warn the king, who is spending winter at the far reaches of the country within a month if they want the defence to have a little time to prepare. Unfortunately, winter comes earlier than expected, and the heroes have to manage their resources and progress at a relatively fast pace despite of the weather. From there, sadistic GMs (but who isn’t?) may of course set many more setbacks on their way. And obviously, the Evil Master Xandern will choose this very moment to set an ambush when the PCs leave the town, so he can get revenge for his last humiliation…

  • The PCs arrive in a village struck every winter by food shortage or even famine. Only the lord in his castle manages to scrounge up something to eat. On further investigation, the characters discover that every year, the harvests rot before Christmas. Digging deeper, they end up learning that the village was cursed by the gods. Several years ago, during an exceptionally harsh winter, the villagers killed and devoured some travellers; and among them there was a saintly man. The PCs have to figure out how to remove the curse while the villagers become all the more hungrier and hungrier… Guess who’s coming for dinner?

  • A last note to the GMs: snow falls in winter, that you know. But footprints are visible when you walk on it, and the players rarely think about that. Every mission of secret infiltration will turn out to be nearly impossible on this thick white mantel. Just think: following a trail in the snow is easy and the NPCs are not stupid. The characters may try to cover up the tracks, but it is a much more tedious operation, and the risk of being spotted increases proportionally.

We hope those little notes on winter will help you designing and running your games.

I would like to thank all the members of who contributed to this discussion. And you’re invited to send us ideas on this topic for our forum.

If you are planning on adventuring in real life consider doing a course by AIARE. This short introduction by Snow Sport Zone is also valuable - Editors

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